Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Fr. Raymond E. Brown on The Genealogy

The Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna c. 1495-1505

I hope to get a chance to post one more time again before Christmas, but if I don’t…

Blessings to all of you this Christmas, and may you have peace in your hearts and in your homes.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.

Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram,

Ram the father of Amminadab. Amminadab became the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon,

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. Boaz became the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. Obed became the father of Jesse,

Jesse the father of David the king. David became the father of Solomon, whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.

Solomon became the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asaph.

Asaph became the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, Joram the father of Uzziah.

Uzziah became the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah.

Hezekiah became the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amos, Amos the father of Josiah.

Josiah became the father of Jechoniah and his brothers at the time of the Babylonian exile.

After the Babylonian exile, Jechoniah became the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,

Zerubbabel the father of Abiud. Abiud became the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor,

Azor the father of Zadok. Zadok became the father of Achim, Achim the father of Eliud,

Eliud the father of Eleazar. Eleazar became the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob,

Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.

Thus the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah, fourteen generations…
-- Matthew 1: 1-17

Recently I've been looking over a small book by the late, great scripture scholar Fr. Raymond E. Brown, S.S. (what a great loss was dealt to the Church by his untimely death in 1998) called A Coming Christ in Advent: Essays on the Gospel Narratives Preparing for the Birth of Jesus : Matthew 1 and Luke 1.

I just thought I'd post a few excerpts of his thoughts about The Genealogy of Jesus, where again we see how God works though the human in ways unexpected, and in His ways through people unexpected.

This genealogy that opens Matthew's Gospel has one prin­cipal occurrence in liturgy, namely, on the Advent weekday December 17 which begins the pre-Christmas octave of in­fancy gospel readings. It was read more frequently in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, but often with disastrous results as the priest-celebrant stumbled over names and sometimes skipped large sections, under the pretense that the reading was a bor­ing and meaningless exercise. To the contrary I have been conducting a somewhat solitary campaign to make this Mat­thean genealogy a major Advent topic, even to the extent that, if I am invited to give a special pre-Christmas sermon, especially on an Advent Sunday, I go out of my way to make Matthew 1:1-17 the subject of the homily. The stunned look on the faces of the parish audience when I launch into the solemn list of begettings is proof that one of the prereq­uisites for effective preaching has been accomplished­…

If a Christian today were asked to tell someone who knows noth­ing about Christianity the basic story of Jesus Christ, where would he or she be likely to begin? I am willing to wager that not one in ten thousand would begin where the author of the Gospel that the church puts first begins - where the first line of the first page of the New Testament begins-with the majestic assurance: This is "the story of the begin­ning/the origin/the genesis of Jesus Christ."

For Matthew the origin of Jesus Christ starts with Abraham begetting Isaac! In other words the story of the He­brew patriarchs, of the kings of Judah, and of other Israelites is the opening stage of the story of Jesus Christ. That such an Old Testament component to the Jesus story would not occur to most Christians today is a sad commentary on how far we have moved from our ancestors' understanding of the good news. Matthew's list of people who are an integral part of the origin of Jesus Christ contains some of the most sig­nificant names in the biblical account of God's dealing with His people Israel, and I for one wish strongly that at least once a year their names were allowed to resound in the Christian church on a Sunday when all the worshiping New Testament people of God were there to hear…if one understood it correctly, this genealogy contains the essential theology of the Old and the New Testaments that the whole Church, Orthodox, Roman Catho­lic, and Protestant, should proclaim. Let me illustrate this by comments on the three sections of the genealogy.


"The story of the origin of Jesus Christ" begins with the pa­triarchal period when Abraham begets Isaac. With even a catechism knowledge of Bible stories the hearer might remember with a little puzzlement that Abraham had two sons of whom Ishmael was the older and wonder why the story of the origin of Jesus Christ does not involve the beget­ting of Ishmael who with his mother Hagar was the more abused figure…

The puzzling "story of the origin of Jesus Christ" goes on with Jacob begetting Judah and his brothers. Why is Judah singled out, and why ultimately is the Messiah from his tribe? Was not Joseph clearly the best of the brothers? Fa­vored by God with visionary dreams that aroused the hatred of the others, Joseph forgave their selling him into captivity in Egypt and saved them when they would have perished from starvation in the famine. Surely he is the embodiment of Jesus' story, not Judah who sold his brother and sought out prostitutes.
Matthew's choice of Isaac over Ishmael, of Jacob over Esau, of Judah over Joseph is faithful to the Old Testament insight that God frequently does not choose the best or the noble or the saintly. In other words, Matthew is faithful to an insight about a God who is not controlled by human merit but manifests His own unpredictable graciousness.


Does not the first section of Matthew's genealogy build up from Abraham to the high point of "David the king"? And does not the second section of the genealogy consist of the gloriously reigning Judean kings of the house of David? The answer to both those ques­tions invokes the basic biblical issue of God's values versus human appearances-"My thoughts are not your thoughts," says the Lord (Is 55:8).
Of the fourteen Judean kings that Matthew lists between David and the deportation only two (Hezekiah and Josiah) could be con­sidered as faithful to God's standards in the law code of Deuteronomy, which were applied to the monarchs by the author of the Books of Kings. The rest were an odd assort­ment of idolaters, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers, and harem-wastrels.
There was, of course, the arranged murder of Bathshe­ba's husband so that David might possess the wife legally: Even more indicative of David's shrewd piety was his per­sonal innocence combined with mafia-like politics whereby his relatives murdered opponents for him. He seized Jerusa­lem, a city that henceforth belonged to him and no tribe, and moved the Ark of the Covenant there to give the blessing of religion to his consolidation of power. Indeed, he succeeded in writing a codicil to God's covenant with His people. Now the covenant no longer simply stated: "You will be my people and I will be your God, if you keep my command­ments"; it had an added condition: "and if you have a king of the house of David reigning over you"

This curious story of a Davidic monarchical institution that had divine origins but was frequently corrupt, venal, and uninspiring, was also part of "the story of the origin of Jesus Christ." Yes, that story involved not only individuals with their strengths and weaknesses like the patriarchs, but an in­stitution, an organization, a structure, indeed a hierarchy (literally, in Greek, a sacred order) embodied in absolute rul­ers… those of us who must be loyal both to the spontaneous grace of God and to a church with authority may get encouragement from this phase of Matthew's theology reflected in the incipient story of Jesus Christ.


What a cu­rious cast of characters this more genuine progress involves. Except for the first two (Shealtiel and Zerubbabel) and the last two (Joseph and Mary), they are a collection of unknown people whose names never made it into sacred history for having done something significant. In other words, while powerful rulers in the monarchy brought God's people to a low point in recorded history (deportation), unknown people, presumably also proportionately divided among saints and sinners, were the vehicles of restoration. Still another indica­tor of the unpredictability of God's grace is that He accom­plishes His purpose through those whom others regard as unimportant and forgettable.

Looking back at the analysis of Matthew's genealogy that I have just given, we see how extraordinarily comprehensive is its theology of the roots of Jesus' story in the Old Testament. The genealogy is more than retrospective and instructive, however. We must recognize that in acting in Jesus Christ God is consistent with His action in Abraham and David, in the patriarchs, in the kings, and in the unknown. But that is only one aspect of the story of Jesus Christ, a story that has a sequence as well as a beginning; and the ongoing aspects are what makes the genealogy "good news" for Matthew's audience and for us. If the beginning of the story involved as many sinners as saints, so has the sequence. This means not simply a Peter who denied Jesus or a Paul who persecuted him, but sinners and saints among those who would bear his name throughout the ages. If we realize that human beings have been empowered to preserve, proclaim, and convey the salvation brought by Jesus Christ throughout ongoing his­tory, the genealogy of the sequence of Jesus contains as pe­culiar an assortment of people as did the genealogy of the beginnings. The God who wrote the beginnings with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witness. A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the im­pure as well as the pure, men to whom the world hearkened and women upon whom the world frowned-this God con­tinues to work through the same melange. If it was a chal­lenge to recognize in the last part of Matthew's genealogy that totally unknown people were part of the story of Jesus Christ, it may be a greater challenge to recognize that the un­known characters of today are an essential part of the se­quence. A sense of being unimportant and too insignificant to contribute to the continuation of the story of Jesus Christ in the world is belied by the genealogy, and the proclamation of that genealogy in the Advent liturgy is designed to give us hope about our destiny and our importance. The message of the genealogy is an enabling invitation. The genealogy has also taught us that God did not hesitate to entrust to a monarchical institution an essential role in the story of His Son's origins-an authoritative institution (at times authoritarian) which He guaranteed with promises lest it fail but which was frequently led by corrupt, venal, stupid, and ineffective leaders, as well as sometimes by saints. He has not hesitated to entrust the sequence of the story to a hi­erarchically structured church, guaranteed with promises, but not free from its own share of the corrupt, the venal, the stu­pid, and the ineffective….

By stress­ing the all-powerful grace of God, the genealogy presents its greatest challenge to those who will accept only an idealized Jesus Christ whose story they would write only with straight lines and whose portrait they would paint only in pastel colors. If we look at the whole story and the total picture, the genealogy teaches us that the beginning was not thus; the Gospels teach us that his ministry was not thus; the his­tory of the church teaches us the sequence was not thus. That lesson is not a discouragement but an encouragement as we look forward to the liturgical coming of Christ. God's grace can work even with people like us. A meditation on "The story of the origin of Jesus Christ-Abraham fathered Isaac . . . Jesse fathered David the king . . . Achim fathered Eliud"- should convince reader and hearer that the authentic "story of the sequence of Jesus Christ" is that Jesus called Peter and Paul . . . Paul called Timothy . . . someone called you . . . and you must call someone else.


Charles of New Haven said...

I'm always a little scandalized when preachers look at a text like this and think there's nothing to say about it. Where I go to school, Brown is always given the prefix "the great."

Liam said...

Jeff, that was great -- I think it sheds a great deal of light on the question that all of us have been debating on the institutionalization of the Church.

Raymond Brown apparently used to preach at Corpus Christi Church on 121st street, the Church where Merton was baptized and ten blocks from my apartment. I wish I had been around here for that, people tell me he was amazing.

Liam said...

Jeff, that was great -- I think it sheds a great deal of light on the question that all of us have been debating on the institutionalization of the Church.

Raymond Brown apparently used to preach at Corpus Christi Church on 121st street, the Church where Merton was baptized and ten blocks from my apartment. I wish I had been around here for that, people tell me he was amazing.

crystal said...

Great painting, again :-) I have to read more about Brown.

Joe said...

What was the one in the middle...?

Jeff said...

Hi Friar,

Good to see you. Fr. Brown was really something wasn't he? Do you read a lot of him for your courses?

Congratulations, btw, on preaching your first wedding. I encourage others to take a look.


I didn't know he preached in New York. That sounds like quite a Parish. Is it diocesan or is it run by an order? Is that the one you regularly attend?


Fr. Brown is well-worth reading and reading about. Another great scholar who passed away within the past few years was Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm.

Some other really good Catholic exegetes to check out are Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., Luke Timothy Johnson, Mary Ann Getty, Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P., Brendon Byrne, S.J., and Maria Cardinal Martini, S.J.

Strict traditionalists are drawn more to Fr. William Most, George Kelly, and the Navarre Biblical commentaries (Opus Dei).


What was the one in the middle...?

Ha! Kevin Kline, in A Fish Called Wanda?

Do you mean the middle of the genealogy, or the middle of the painting? Balthazar is the one with the lisp, the one who couldn't say "frankincense" without drawing big laughs...

Deacon Denny said...

Very nice, Jeff. Ray Brown WAS the best. For years I've used the "Jerome Biblical Commentary" as just about the best all-purpose source to turn to, when some puzzling expression turns up in the Scriptures. This genealogy discourse is magnificent.

Jeff said...

Hi Deacon!

The JBC has come in very handy for me over the years. Its a fabulous piece of work. Do you find that you draw upon Fr. Brown much for your homilies?

Liam said...

Well, he taught at Union Theological Seminary and Corpus Christi is about thirty feet away. It's diocesan. I've been to a couple of Vespers services there, but my parish is Ascension on 107th street. It's great living in Manhattan -- there are about four parishes in walking distance.

If you've ever seen "Keeping the Faith," Ascension is the Church they used for Ed Norton's parish.

cowboyangel said...

Yeah, this is all great, but can someone explain Zerah to me? Has anyone ever read or hear a good explanation for his inclusion on the list?

Jeff, You recommend reading Brown - do you have any titles in mind?

Friar, Congratulations! "The 'I love you' that passes between the bride and groom today, of which we are all joyful witnesses, is the same 'I love you,' the same Word of God through which the world was created." Very nice. In the day-to-day "camino" that is marriage, it's easy to forget that. Thanks for the reminder. My wife will appreciate it.

Liam, I didn't know that was Ascension in Keeping the Faith. Perhaps we hadn't been there yet when we saw the film.

cowboyangel said...

Oh, and Merry Christmas everyone!

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Hmm, that's a good question. I guess the point about Zerar was not so much about him himself, but about his mother Tamar. Regarding her, Brown writes:

We hear nothing of the saintly patriarchal wives, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel. Matthew begins rather with Tamar, a Canaanite outsider left childless by the death of her first and second husbands, both of them Judah's sons. When Judah failed to do his duty in providing her with a third son as husband, she disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced him. Only later when he found his widowed daughter-in-law in a pregnant situation that he regarded as disgraceful did she reveal that he was the father, causing Judah to recognize that she was more just and loyal to God's law then he was. The next in the list is another outsider, the Canaanite Rahab-this time a real prostitute,
but one whose kindness in protecting the Israelite spies made the conquest of Jericho possible. Odd figures to be part of the beginning story of Jesus Christ, unless we remember his gracious dealings with sinners and prostitutes which were part of the story of his ministry.

For Brown books that I would recommend, a lengthy one would be An Introduction to the New Testament, and a shorter one would be The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.

I haven't read Birth of the Messiah or The Community of the Beloved Disciple, but he was well-known for those. My understanding is that he was recognized across the denominational spectrum as being an authority on the Johannine community.